Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Valérie Hartmann-Claverie: Ondes Martenot
Yuja Wang: Piano
After thoroughly enjoying an Olivier Messiaen-focused chamber concert curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen and performed by members of the New York Philharmonic in Williamsburg's National Sawdust on Monday night, I had become even more eager – and that is saying a lot – to experience a larger-scale feat on Friday night with E.P. conducting the entire orchestra plus hotter-than-ever virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang and celebrated ondes Martenot expert Valérie Hartmann-Claverie in Messiaen's sprawling, unruly Turangalîla-symphonie in Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall.
Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra's musical director and conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who smartly gave Messiaen carte blanche, the work was premiered in Boston in 1949. The concert was conducted by a young Leonard Bernstein, featured Yvonne Loriod at the piano and Ginette Loriod at the ondes Martelot, and gathered some scathing reviews. But common sense eventually prevailed and it is now justly considered a 20th century masterpiece as audiences have learned to appreciate the 75-minute journey into musical territories that still feel unspoiled and awe-inspiring to this day.
I had been warned, in a nice but firm tone, by voicemail and email that there would be no late seating, a message that apparently everybody in the audience had heeded. Therefore, after a typically insightful and entertaining introduction by Salonen, during which he authoritatively put the Turangalîla into the same "certified forever fresh" category as the Eroica, La symphonie fantastique, Tristan and Isolde and The Rite of Spring, we all braced ourselves for a ride that, according to popular wisdom, could only be intensely wild.
Rightly yet deceptively described by the composer himself as a "love song", the Turangalîla was drawn from Messiaen's complicated budding love for Yvonne Loriod (Apparently there's nothing better for inspiration than being a married catholic composer who has found his life-time muse in a catholic student of yours while your wife is bound to remain in a sanitarium for the rest of her life) and the no less complicated mythical love of Tristan and Isolde; from then on, it boldly and ecstatically expands beyond human comprehension and into the infinite cosmos.
Widely acknowledged as one of the world's top orchestras, The New York Philharmonic never sounds better than when they work on an exciting challenge with a conductor they deeply love, respect and trust such as Esa-Pekka Salonen. On Friday night, one could most definitely sense that the musicians were ready, willing and able to follow him anywhere, and lo and behold, they actually did.
The name "Turangalîla" being derived from two Sanskrit words, "turanga" (tempo) and "lîla" (life force, rhythm), the symphony's ten movements explore the many facets of love in all its big, euphoric, and tender ways with unusual sounds, unexpected turns as well as fully relatable emotions. On Friday, the musical landscapes relentlessly went from explosive to dreamy to frenetic as the orchestra whole-hearted performed at it very best under the energetic, tight and detailed control of Salonen, who by all accounts was totally in tune with the method in the madness.
Not to be outdone, the two soloists were unmistakably present and in full command of their parts. At the piano, Yuja Wang was consistently assertive and precise, particularly distinguishing herself in the beautifully lyrical "Jardin du sommeil d’amour" movement. Valérie Hartmann-Claverie has to be an unequalled Turangalîla veteran by now, which probably explains why the slightly otherworldly sounds from her ondes Martenot came out always perfectly balanced with the orchestra's playing, either flawlessly blending or cleverly standing out.
The extraordinary adventure concluded in an unabashedly joyful, seemingly never-ending climax, whose triumphantly resounding power was quickly matched by the rousing ovation that ensued. Love had conquered all.